Student Perspective: Rebekka

Rebekka is from Zurich in Switzerland. She studied for the Swiss Matura, and has studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

Hi, I'm Rebekka, a 20-year-old Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic student in first year. ASNC (as it’s called in Cambridge-lingo), is one of the smallest and least well-known courses (and it’s quite unique to Cambridge). Therefore, as I am studying such a niche course, and as I am also an international student from Zurich in Switzerland, I hope to particularly encourage both international applicants and those who are thinking about applying for ASNC.

What attracted you to the ASNC course?

When I decided to apply to Cambridge, I wasn’t sure yet what degree I wanted to do, except that I wanted to go for a humanities subject involving languages. I had already done Latin at school for several years and had a particular passion for all things old and obscure. When I read through the online prospectus for Cambridge undergraduate degrees, ASNC was without any doubt the one that sounded the most intriguing – particularly as I hadn’t known that it was possible to study such a niche and unique course, combining the history and languages of a very specific period and region. I didn’t know anything about any of the peoples and languages mentioned and had no clear idea of what the course really entailed, but after reading through various other degree descriptions, ASNC remained the one that genuinely caught my interest. My tentative interest was reinforced when I devoured every bit of information I read during my subsequent Google searches, and confirmed my decision to apply for ASNC.

What is King's like?

King’s has the most inclusive and welcoming community I have ever come across and been lucky enough to be a part of. In October, I arrived on my own in a foreign country and I felt completely at home within a few weeks. By the end of term I didn’t want to leave.

They say that everyone loves their College, regardless of why they chose it (and also if they got pooled), and I find that makes perfect sense, as every College has a community committed to making it the best College in town. The same goes for King’s, and although I wasn’t even aware of the particular reputation of the College and community as being very active, inclusive and welcoming to international students, I think I couldn’t have chosen better.

What happens when you're new?

Freshers' Week is designed to help you settle in, and literally the entire College is committed to this common cause. Within the first few days you are introduced to your entire social and welfare network to fall back on, including your Tutor, Director of Studies, Senior Tutor, the Chaplain and most importantly (I found) your College parents.

College parents are usually (and as far as possible) doing the same course as you (at least one of them) and can therefore offer you invaluable help and advice. Your College parents are second-years who in their first year (and for the most part, in their first term, as freshers themselves) proposed to one another, got married at the Valentine’s Day formal (a special meal in Lent term) and decided to “have children”, that is, you! They will get in touch with you before you arrive and thus are there to answer your questions basically even before you’re "born". Then there’s the Fresher’s group on Facebook (and let me warn you, unless you’re a single-minded person with very strong principles, it’s impossible to escape the suction of Facebook in Cambridge) which was very active in the weeks before the start of Michaelmas and upon arriving I felt I already knew half of the other freshers.

Were there things that you worried about before you arrived?

As an international student, I was slightly anxious before I arrived about the prospective hassle of opening a bank account and registering with a GP. However, it all turned out to be absolutely feasible and was easy to fit in during the first few days of Freshers' Week, when you have more than enough free time to set up all the official stuff in between your meetings and events. College will provide you with the required confirmation letter for opening a bank account if you ask them, and the University has set up particular opening hours and ways to facilitate registering with a local GP (literally a matter of filling out a questionnaire and going to a quick 10-min check at a surgery a few hundred metres down the road).

There are trunk rooms so that students who have chosen 'short contract' accommodation can leave things in King's over the vacations.

Another worry of mine was resolved when I first left for home over the Christmas vacation – although storage space at the College is limited per person, there is more than enough space to leave your things (unless you’re planning to bring your entire household, but even then you’re likely to find some kind soul, i.e. a fellow fresher on long contract, who will let you leave some things in their room over the vacation).

What about the academic aspects?

As far as settling into the subject and actually studying at Cambridge are concerned, ASNC has an induction week where they introduce each available paper, and you even have a mini-supervision to help you find your way through the subject. And although you have to hand in a form with your choice of papers after induction week, it is still possible to change your mind and submit your definitive choice towards the end of term. Your Director of Studies will be more than happy to discuss your choice of papers with you, and so will your ASNC College parent – provided you have one (see it as a curse or a blessing, we are a rare breed and you will find very few Colleges with more than one ASNC per year, if at all). I will say more on the subject later, but rest assured that settling into ASNC is hardly any more difficult than settling into College life.

When did you decide to apply?

As I only made a definite decision to apply to Cambridge over the course of my last year of school, I took a gap year and started my application after having left school, thus already having my Swiss Matura results (equivalent to A levels - but my time was spread across 12 subjects) at the time of application. I feel like I may therefore have faced slightly less pressure, although I still found the entire application process and the prospect of traveling to Cambridge for an interview quite frightening.

However, upon arriving at the College I found that seeing the place from the inside and talking (for hours) to the lovely and incredibly helpful students at the King's interview helpdesk made an enormous difference in my attitude to my interview the following day. To my complete surprise I was hardly nervous at all, and although I cannot speak for other subjects, my interview for ASNC felt so informal and friendly, there was no reason to feel intimidated. It took place in a small office on cosy chairs and was meant to last for 20 minutes – and ended slightly abruptly after half an hour because we had lost track of time (I had talked too much). Walking out, I certainly didn’t feel like I had said many particularly smart things but really my worries about the interview only settled in afterwards, while during those 30 minutes I felt fairly calm and not too anxious.

What advice would you give about the interview?

Judging from the fact that I am now in a position to write this text, there can’t have been too much wrong with my interview. I thus feel confident enough to share my experience of what I felt was helpful – and I don’t think it was knowledge that counted. Although I had done some reading, I felt like I had barely read anything in preparation and that I was lucky that my very limited knowledge did indeed help me with a few of the questions. Really, the interview was about making use of the little I knew, trying to build on ideas and showing the interviewers my reasoning. Of course, preparatory reading is useful and certainly shows your interest in the subject, and I think I would have had a much harder time at the interview if I hadn’t at least looked at some chapters of a few books. But they do say that they don’t expect any previous knowledge of the areas covered in the course, and I myself only had some Latin I had done at school as an ASNC-relevant background.

What they want to see is someone they believe will be successful and happy doing this course. So they are looking for both academic potential and passion. And if you’re a lazy person like me who can’t muster up the energy to read a lot of complete books in preparation for the interview, I recommend at least getting a couple from the library and looking through them. Just pick a few titles from each section of the reading list on the ASNC website and have a go at some random chapters that look interesting. That may not be a fool-proof method and I can give no guarantee, but it worked out for me.

How have you got on with College life?

The main events where the whole College meets are the formals: 'formal halls' are served dinners where most people show up dressed in suits and dresses. The competitive nature of the struggle for tickets probably makes them seem all the more attractive. Afterwards, there is usually musical entertainment (read: huge party) in the College bar and they’re honestly the most fun events I’ve ever been to in Cambridge (I am yet to experience the post-exam celebrations of May Week).

In the University and the College there are a plethora of sports and societies on offer, and there is something for everyone. I have found that rowing for the College boat club is a great way to get to know a lot of your fellow students, particularly across the different years, and commitment is flexible. You do, however, also have to do work, and I find that King’s is in the best possible location for all different aspects for your student life. It is centrally situated, within a 7 minute walk to the Faculty and the University Library, 5 minutes to the nearest supermarket, 15 minutes cycling to the boat-house, and in first year (and also later years) you even have the possibility of living on the campus, within 3 minutes or so from the College servery, bar and library. Eating in hall – and King’s is one of the Colleges where you actually eat in the old hall every day rather than having to make do with a newer, less nice room – well, eating in hall is one of the more sociable things you’re probably going to do on an average week day. It’s noisy, full of people, Harry Potter-style and the food is quite good as well (most of the time).

In my spare time, I have ended up spending more and more time on the river and committing to rowing more than I ever intended to. Starting out as a complete novice this year, I have come to love it, and treasure the exercise and time I get outside, whilst at the same time being part of a close team more than in most other sports. Because I don’t like to have a completely stuffed schedule, I am not really active in any other society, apart from occasionally going to the Cambridge Union to see debates and speaker events. The Union is a great way of staying up-to-date and informed (to a certain degree) on current social and political issues – if you are willing to pay the hefty membership fee. There are also lots of free talks in Cambridge and King's (e.g.King's Politics events). From time to time I have ‘ASNC lunch’ at the Faculty, which happens once a week – I’m otherwise not active in the ASNC society, but it is very easy to get involved if you are interested, and they also go to the pub once a week, which offers a great opportunity to spend some social time with your fellow ASNCs.

What is the course like?

In first year, the work mainly consists of writing one essay per week (which I have a one-on-one supervision on), lectures and language classes, as well as the respective preparatory reading and translation homework. If you organise yourself and manage your time effectively, there is still more than enough free time for hobbies and socialising, which is essential for your mental health and probably also part of the reason why you want to come to Cambridge. The Cambridge Bubble, with its cornerstones being the collegiate system and the active student community, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you wouldn’t want to miss the many opportunities on offer here and bury yourself in a pile of books in the library for three years.

As I mentioned earlier, induction week in ASNC gives you a chance to gain an insight into each paper before you choose. There are ten papers, five language and five history papers (including palaeography), whereof you choose six. Furthermore, in addition to the Tripos papers there are also voluntary Modern Irish and Modern Icelandic language courses on offer. I’m doing three languages and find that that’s more than enough for me, but although your Director of Studies probably won’t encourage you to do all five languages, you’re basically completely free to choose and combine the papers you’re interested in. In four out of those chosen papers you write exams at the end of first year, and in the other two you have Preliminary Assessment Tests (PATs) at the end of your second term. Plus, King’s College does mock exams (really nothing to worry about and even easier than PATs!) in January at the beginning of Lent term, and you write them in the great hall. That’s likely to be the most Hogwartsesque-experience you’re ever going to have.

How is it different to studying at school?

In terms of adjustment in your modes of studying, I suppose the biggest change is the independence you’re given at Uni, and doing ASNC in particular. There are very few contact hours a week, and although your Director of Studies and Tutor are there to support you if you need them, it’s ultimately up to you to organise yourself.

Another big change to prepare yourself for is the cancellation of your weekend. Cambridge likes to do things differently, and so teaching weeks go from Thursday to Wednesday. Doing ASNC, you don’t have lectures on Saturdays (which some poor souls doing Natural Sciences do), but unless you’re very effective in your studying and work really hard during the week, you basically just keep on working right through the weekend. I don’t really mind that so much, because the weekend still allows me to unwind and feel less pressure when working, because you obviously still have more time than on a weekday with lectures and classes. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t work all day on Saturdays and Sundays. I go rowing and go out and engage in procrastination and other leisure activities: I just find that I never take a complete day off during term time. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible, but it would require me to work more efficiently during the week: time management is the key.

What have you enjoyed most this year?

This year, I have thoroughly enjoyed the languages (I did Old English, Old Norse and Latin) and I will definitely continue the respective papers next year – the languages are coupled with the literature, and I have thus written essays on subjects ranging from Latin authors such as Bede and Gildas, to Old English poems and Old Norse sagas and poetry. I have particularly enjoyed the freedom of interpretative essays, for example, on the Old English elegies "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer", and also been equally fascinated to read and write about the Old Norse poetic feature of the kenning or the role of women in "The Saga of the People of Laxardal". Essays on history papers offer slightly less interpretative freedom, but on the other hand they also draw in archaeological sources and thus offer another aspect that I find very interesting. The latter also shows how interdisciplinary ASNC is, and in second and third year a range of papers can be borrowed from other subjects, such as the archaeology paper I’m thinking of doing next year – the options available and the possibility to combine the papers you like is certainly very unique.

Where do you do your work?

Typically, I have about two to three classes or lectures per day, spread across the day (a bit inconveniently) and spend the in-between-hours of the day finding a healthy mixture of work and procrastination, usually either in my room or in a library. You have three libraries to choose from if you’re too lazy to explore further, but there are probably at least fifty places to choose from if you’re interested in a change of scene from time to time – in theory you’re free to study (but not take out books) in every College and Faculty library there is in Cambridge.

Depending on the time of the day, the King’s library can be quite crowded, but the focused atmosphere and wonderful view of the King’s chapel and the Backs (depending on which seat you manage to snatch) are well worth it. I personally don’t like working in the English Faculty library, where us ASNCs have our small department, quite as much, but the University Library is basically an (arguably quite ugly) book-lover’s paradise, with a ratio of probably (I have no clue) several thousand books per human being in the building.

What are the best and worst things about the ASNC course?

I find that what makes ASNC special is that you’re completely free to put together your course according to what you’re interested in, and it offers a unique combination of languages and history. Most supervisors even give you a choice of essay titles and, although we ASNCs all study the same course, there are probably not going to be more than one or two people in your year that do the same combination of papers as you, so no-one will have the exact same experience as you do.

On the other hand, that is also the one drawbacks about the course. Since I write my essays on my own, have my supervisions one-on-one and see my fellow ASNC students for a few hours per week at most in lectures, it can feel slightly lonely. Apart from translation homework, maybe, you I really do work together wih other ASNC students, and since in many cases each ASNC student is the only ASNC student in their year at their College, it’s really up to you to seek the company of your fellow ASNC students in the Faculty. The ASNC Society facilitates that, and is very active and inclusive. However, I’ve found that I sort of have to make a choice which social circle I spend more time with – College or course.

I absolutely love the King’s community and they’re also the ones you get to meet and get to know first, so personally, I’ve come to spend more time with people from my College than from my course. However, since ASNC is such a small course, I'm actually part of two communities. I do have to admit, that I sometimes get a bit jealous when I see the Mathmos (Mathematicians) or NatScis (Natural Scientists) sitting over their homework together in King's bar. But that does not mean that I have to do my work on my own. In Fresher’s Week, when they give you loads of tips on how to study, you are encouraged to work in libraries and public spaces to make sure you don’t get isolated, and I do find it makes a huge difference. I do work in my room a lot, although this is not ideal in terms of separation of work and leisure, but the hours I spend in the library are usually more productive and I feel better doing it. As it is a small subject, the ASNC books you’re going to need are mainly in the Faculty and the University Library, both 5 minutes walk away from College, but if you’re willing to carry books back and forth, you’re still pretty much free to choose where you want to work. And it’s not like you don’t have a wide range of spaces to choose from.

Where in college do you live this year?

I lived in the Keynes Building in the middle of King's this year, and was one of the lucky people to get a room on the fourth floor – these are very nicely built, with high ceilings and a lot of natural light (making it a very nice work place), as well as having the bed and wardrobe on a second floor with stairs in the room (and ensuite of course).

Keynes is very conveniently located within two minutes’ walk from the King’s bar, cafeteria, library and laundry room. The one drawback about Keynes is the lack of communal space upstairs since there's the College bar on the ground floor, and Keynes does not have proper kitchens as some of the other accommodation options do. After staying with a friend in Spalding Hostel for a few days, I particularly missed the opportunity of cooking and eating with friends when I went back to my own room. Although basic facilities are available in the Keynes gyp rooms (i.e. a microwave, toaster, kettle and sink) and I have made soup and salads for myself from time to time, if you are planning on living in Keynes in first year, you will likely end up eating in Hall (or eating out) most of the time – which is certainly not bad either, just something to take into consideration when choosing accommodation.

What do you do during the vacations?

My short vacations have been much less productive than I would have liked them to be, yet I think that if you manage to more or less stay on top of your work during term time, you are more than free and even need to take some time off completely. Terms in Cambridge are incredibly intense, and everyone needs time to wind down and regain their strength and motivation during a well-deserved break. It is probably wise to structure and roughly plan your break beforehand, because the temptation is big to just completely collapse as soon as you’re home. I managed to fit two weeks of paid full-time work in during my Christmas holiday and did some revision for the mock exam, and still took time off over Christmas. A good balance of studying and relaxing will probably prove to be the most rewarding way of spending your vacation, because revision without the pressure of deadlines and supervisions can actually help you rediscover your motivation and enthusiasm for the subject and be genuinely enjoyable.

What’s your favourite memory from this year?

Some of my fondest memories from this year I have collected rowing on the Cam: bumping for the first time during the Lent Bumps Boat Races, wearing King’s purple and proudly representing your College. Other moments I treasure are small gestures, like greeting people around the College, bumping into a fellow fresher on every corner and feeling part of a community in a way that you never would at a non-collegiate university. Going to my first Formal, where I arrived late and had to sit at a table of second and third-years I didn’t know but by the end of the evening got along with splendidly; writing the letter for our College children with my “husband” and having so much fun doing it; sitting with a friend by the river on the Backs of King’s College and watching the punts go by, quietly laughing about the wrong facts imparted by the punting guides (did you know that the College dining hall is plated in gold? – it is not). The list could go on forever – I am full of memories of this first year, and I realize how much it has changed me, more than I would ever have expected.

What are you looking forward to?

If you’ve never been here and visited you’ll have to take my word for it (otherwise you’ve probably already found this out for yourself): Cambridge is an amazing place. The atmosphere is stimulating and inspiring, the buildings are a feast for the eyes and the community at King’s is just great. I’m excited already that I'm going to have College-children when the new freshers arrive in autumn, and I’m weirdly looking forward to the feeling of coming back in October after three months away. In some ways, Cambridge now feels more like home than home-home, if that makes sense. My friends and my hobbies are in Cambridge now, and as a friend recently said to me quite accurately: When you’re back at home, your life feels like it’s on pause.

June 2016

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